WELLS, Maine — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins doubted on Tuesday that a new conservative majority on the Supreme Court will overturn key health and abortion laws while Democratic opponent Sara Gideon did not rule out a call from progressives to add justices to the high court.
Their remarks come a week before Election Day and a day after Collins was the only Republican to to oppose the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the high court. Collins made clear her decision was based on opposition to confirming any nominee before the election after Republicans blocked former President Barack Obama’s final pick in 2016.
The Supreme Court was the main flashpoint at the beginning of the race between Collins and Gideon after the fourth-term senator voted in 2018 for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It kicked off a massive race that could decide party control of the Senate and has seen more than $170 million in spending to date, smashing Maine records.
The candidates’ stances on the high court are a mix of old positions and new ways of talking about the issue. Collins has rejected the notion that a conservative court would automatically side with Republicans on health care and abortion. Gideon has long said that is a real possibility while being skeptical of aggressive plans to change the makeup of the court.
Collins, who voted to confirm Barrett to a lower court in 2017, said Tuesday while visiting businesses in York County that she could not speak to the new justice’s qualifications for the high court, saying that she did not meet with Barrett nor read many of her decisions, as the senator would have if she were to back Barrett.
Now holding a solid 6-3 conservative majority, the court is prepared to hear major cases in the coming months, including one on the Affordable Care Act. Democrats have expressed concern that the court could overturn that law as well as the landmark Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights. Some Republicans — not Collins — have expressed excitement at both prospects.
The Maine Republican, one of only a few members of her party who supports abortion rights, said she does not think that Roe vs. Wade or the health care law are in jeopardy, saying the former was “firmly established” while the latter would be protected by severability — a legal doctrine holding that some laws can be left mostly in effect if one piece is struck down.
“I know that you’re not supposed to predict how the Supreme Court is going to rule, but when I look at the doctrine of severability and the predilection of Supreme Court justices to not overrule Congress, I believe that if they think part of the ACA is not constitutional, they will jettison that part and keep the rest of the law intact,” Collins said.
Gideon, who held a campaign stop with Jill Biden, the wife of Democratic nominee Joe Biden, in Bangor on Tuesday afternoon, has previously said she is wary of reforms proposed by some Democrats, such as adding justices to the high court.
After Barrett’s confirmation, however, Gideon argued that “court packing” — a term for that progressive proposal — has already occurred as Trump has appointed hundreds of federal judges during his tenure and slammed Collins’ 2017 support for Barrett to a federal judgeship.
“That is what has happened over the last four years,” she said, referring to Trump’s appointments, “and Susan Collins has helped them do that.”
When asked about court packing in the past, Gideon has said she was skeptical that it would lead to a more independent judiciary. She reiterated that theme on Tuesday, saying she would evaluate future policy around Supreme Court justices through that lens of independence and by not confirming appointees with a political agenda.
Biden has said if elected, he would create a commission to study alternatives to depoliticize the court. Adding justices would require the support of at least 50 senators, and that would only be possible if Democrats gain control of the Senate and eliminate the filibuster.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who caucuses with Democrats and has also been skeptical of court packing, indicated a degree of openness to it in a late-night floor speech on Sunday, saying he was not sure what else Republicans could expect after rushing through Barrett’s nomination.
Polling in the Senate race has been close, with most public polls giving Gideon a narrow lead over Collins in the four-way race with independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn. Both major parties have continued to pour resources into Maine, most recently $10 million in ad buys from two groups tied to Democratic leadership.
BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.